Samples of Brad's Writing
Stop the Show!:  A History of Insane Incidents and Absurd Accidents in the Theater

Anecdotes from Stop the Show! (Da Capo) by Brad Schreiber


Allowing an ensemble to improvise lines can be treacherous, especially if those background actors are a bit too creative.
      Michael Bethnall was directing Julius Caesar at the Old Vic and castigated the ensemble for a lack of authenticity in their background reactions. “Just behave as you would normally in a crowded street.”
      That night, a member of a crowd scene walked offstage in his toga, shouting “Taxi!”

Elaine May and Mike Nichols are heralded as the one of the greatest improv and comedy  teams in history. But one night, even these two gifted performers unconsciously went to a very disturbing place onstage, one they would rather forget.
     When they performed at the Compass Players in Chicago, the predecessor to Second City, Nichols and May used to do a bit called “Pirandello.” Inspired by that playwright’s Six Characters In Search of an Author, the sketch worked like this: First, Nichols and May would be children, imitating their parents. Then, they would become the parents, fighting in earnest. Then, they would become Nichols and May, fighting with each other about performing Pirandello. Then, as the audience grew uncomfortable, May would start to leave the stage, angry. Nichols would grab at her blouse.
“What do you think you’re doing?” May would demand, infuriated.
“Pirandello,” Nichols would blithely reply and they would both take a bow, showing the astonished audience it was all part of the sketch.
     The daring of this concept viscerally affected its audiences but none more so than the night Nichols and May got to the point in Pirandello when they were pretending to fight with each other. Both got lost in the intensity of the moment and actually began to hurt each other. Nichols hit May while May clawed at his chest.
     Offstage, both broke down in tears.

Jimmy Durante performed in a Rodgers and Hart musical called Jumbo at New York’s Hippodrome Theatre in 1935. The Hippodrome at that time was billed as the largest theatre in the world, seating about 5300 people. It starred Durante and an even bigger star, Tuffy, the elephant, playing Jumbo, an enormous elephant made popular by circus impresario P.T. Barnum.
     One day, in front of thousands, Durante dropped his lines as he was taken aback by Tuffy dropping something else in great quantity on the stage.
     Regaining his composure, Durante admonished the elephant, “Hey, Tuffy, no ad libbing!”



Leslie Crowther was a principal comedian in the Black and White Minstrel Show that ran from 1962 to 1965 at London’s Victoria Palace.  A live orchestra was used, as well as taped singing, so the performers had ease of movement and did not have to use microphones.
      But Crowther and fellow performer George Chisholm found their movements rather hurried one night, when there was a power
failure in the theatre, while they were in their dressing rooms before the show.
      They heard the taped singing of Tony Mercer change a key and then slow down, dropping lower and lower, even though the
orchestra played at their usual tempo. Then, all the lights went out.
      Crowther and Chisholm ran in total darkness from their dressing rooms, grabbing flashlights on the run. Shining them in each
other’s faces, they entertained the crowd for forty-five minutes, as Chisholm, impromptu, played the trombone and Crowther belted
out jokes.
      The only problem was the resolution of the problem. Suddenly, the power returned and lights came up, onstage and in the theatre.
      Crowther and Chisholm were wearing nothing but jock straps.

     Theatre has the power to make an audience laugh or cry. But Steven Buntrock was in a production of Rodgers and
Hammerstein’s South Pacific that unintentionally made people scream in terror.
     In rehearsals for the tour, Buntrock, as Lt. Cable, was supposed to be shot and for that purpose, there was a blood packet under
his tee shirt that he would smack and break open at the proper time.
     The director, however, did not think it looked very impressive and instructed Buntrock to turn toward the audience after the
supposed shot, so they could see the spread of “blood” through his tee shirt.
     For the fourth show of the tour, ten minutes before the curtain, the producer got an even better idea. He told Buntrock, “We
can’t see enough blood through your tee shirt. Take the blood packet out and smack it on your face during the death scene.”
     So, Buntrock hid the packet in his hand and when the shot went off, he was full back to the audience. He smashed the fist-sized packet against his head. The audience screamed in horror. It looked like Buntrock had half of his head blown off.
     The effect was so startling, even for the performers, that the gun was accidentally dropped into the audience as the lights went out. Buntrock was now supposed to exit through an aisle in the house but the mock blood, made of colored shampoo, stung his eyes and blinded him.
     He stumbled into the audience in the dark, getting fake blood on people. The gun was required for the performance and so the actor playing Emile de Beque went into the audience, in the dark, to try and retrieve it.
     There, covered in stage blood, he reached down for what he thought was the gun. When the lights came up, he was holding a white leather purse, now slathered in fake blood, and the lady who it belonged to was trying to grab it back.


The great Lilly Langtry was performing the lead in Camilla in London. While onstage with her lover, she noticed the white camellia, which she gave him each night in the scene, was missing. She subtly acted her way toward the wings and harshly whispered to a stagehand, “My camellia!”
      A stagehand responded instantly and without looking at what she had been given, Langtry approached her paramour, uttering the following, impassioned speech:
      “Take this flower, Armand. It is rare, pale, senseless, cold but sensitive as purity itself. Cherish it and its beauty will excel the loveliest flower that grows, but wound it with a single touch and you shall never recall its bloom or wipe away the stain.”
      With that, she handed him a half-eaten stalk of celery that the stagehand had been chewing.

Actors are a remarkable breed. They continue performing when they are injured, when they feel ill and even, in the case of Alfred Uhry’s The Last Days of Ballyhoo, when they cannot be seen.
     Meredith Hagedorn was ushering at the Canon Theatre in Beverly Hills during the Uhry play when the power went out and the theatre was plunged into darkness.
     The actors stopped speaking and froze onstage. The ushers ran down into the house and carefully began guiding patrons toward the exits with the illumination of flashlights.
     But then, one of the actors, previously frozen onstage, demanded that everyone stop. Some ushers shone their flashlights on the actor, who called out, “Well, wouldn’t you all like to see the end of the show? We’ve got about fifteen minutes and this is the best part!”
     The audience applauded and those standing returned to their seats. The play was finished, thanks to all the ushers shining flashlights on the stage. Each usher held three flashlights: One in each hand and one in their mouths.



The true, unsung hero of live stage is the stage manager, who often solves the impossible without the audience even knowing there is a problem.
     Jerry Stiller was in Terrence McNally’s comedy The Ritz at the Longacre in 1975. He played amusing tough guy Carmine Vespucci. Among the props he had in the dressing room, prior to coming onstage one night, were a mink coat and a mock .38 caliber pistol.
     Stiller went, one performance, into the dressing room to grab the coat and gun, only to find them gone. Someone had clearly walked by the theatre, reached through the iron bars over the window and snagged both items.
     Completely panic stricken, Stiller found stage manager Larry Ford and told him of the crisis. “What do I do? I can’t go on without my gun!”
     Ford decisively handed Stiller his stage manager script and promised to be back quickly.
     Stiller paced back and forth, agonizing, for five minutes.
     Good to his word, Ford returned with another mink coat and another gun, also very realistic in appearance.
     Stiller was flooded with relief and took both items, readying himself for his entrance. He asked Ford where he got them so fast.
     “I borrowed the coat from a lady in the audience,” said the intrepid stage manager. “The gun I got from a cop on 48th Street. Now, go ahead. Do your scene.”

For many people of an artistic persuasion, the hardest audience to please is neither critic nor fellow artist.
     It’s your parents.
     Anthony Shaffer was at the opening of fellow playwright Harold Pinter’s The Homecoming, when he bumped into Pinter’s father in the theatre.
     Rather than expressing pride in his son’s work, the elder Pinter told Shaffer to inform Harold that the public did not really like his work. Furthermore, Pinter’s father wanted Shaffer to see if Pinter couldn’t “…brighten it up a bit.”



The first night of entertainment in Sir Oswald Stoll’s newly refurbished Coliseum in 1904 London was a smash, not a smash hit, just something that went smash.
      The Derby was a performance featuring pickpockets, fine ladies, crowds, mounted police and six jockeys on live horses, all moved by a revolve. Due to a failure in the braking mechanism, the revolve, which should have turned no faster than fifteen miles per hour, hit a speed that would do a quarterhorse proud.
      Actors, horses, bits of the set and properties went flying out into the audience. Lead jockey and the unfortunately named Fred Dent flew into the side of a box and expired before reaching Charing Cross Hospital.

Patrick Tovatt was playing in Eugen O'Neill's A Long Day's Journey into Night at the American Conservatory Theatre in San Francisoc with his good friend David Grimm. Based on what befell Tovatt, it is amazing that they stayed friends.
     The play required a fight between their characters.  At one performance, a blow from Grimm shattered Tovatt’s left eardrum.
     The play was blocked again, so that lines delivered toward Tovatt’s character would reach his right ear, not his left. This worked for the rest of the run. A year later, the play was revived and at the end of the tour, Grimm, during their fight sequence, put a little bit too much into it and shattered Tovatt’s other eardrum.



Garry Marshall, after working as director, producer and actor in television and film, opened the Falcon Theatre in Burbank, a 130-seat space that often puts on children’s theatre during the weekends, introducing kids to live stage often for the first time.
      One afternoon, Sleeping Beauty was being presented and the actor playing Prince Charming entered, wearing very close-fitting tights.
      A young boy in the front row, who could not have been much more than four years old, clearly was having his first live theatre experience. He stood up and clear as a bell, announced to his mother and the rest of the Falcon Theatre, “Mommy, I can see Prince Charming’s penis!”

When is a rude theatergoer who interferes with a production not a rude theatergoer? When the producer of a failing show has paid that person to cause a ruckus.
      Maverick producer David Merrick, noted for his publicity stunts, came up with his most outrageous machination during the New York run of John Osborne’s Look Back In Anger. While the play changed the history of British theatre, the American version of philandering, furious Jimmy Porter did not do well and ticket sales had dropped off dramatically.
      So Merrick hired a woman for $250 to sit in the second row and, at an agreed-upon moment, jump up onstage and physically attack actor Kenneth Haig, playing Porter, ostensibly because the character was cheating on his wife.
Merrick had hoped, the newspapers reported the incident, assuming it was real and spontaneous. According to Merrick, it extended the life of the play in New York by seven months.

Comedian Dave Chappelle found it was hard to respond to a heckler one night. It was difficult to spot the person, no doubt because Chapelle was performing not in a comedy club but New York’s Madison Square Garden.
      So, rather than trying to respond to someone he could not see, Chappelle asked for help from his many fans.
      He told those around the heckler to punch him in the kidneys.

When the fervor to get tickets to My Fair Lady at the Drury Lane was at its height, the house manager one night noticed a lady with an open seat next to her. He asked if it belonged to her.
      She sadly admitted, “My husband was coming but he was killed in a car accident.”
      The manager expressed his sympathy and asked why she had not invited a family member or friend to join her at the very popular musical.
      The woman insisted she couldn’t. “You see, they’re all at the funeral.”